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Learning to Be Papa Daddy

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Being a father came pretty naturally. I have loved so many aspects of the role – especially playing, teaching and discovering. When our children began having children, Karen and I asked ourselves the question, “What do we want them to call us?” Grandad is too stiff. Maybe Grandaddy. Borrowing …
By Seth Barnes

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Being a father came pretty naturally. I have loved so many aspects of the role – especially playing, teaching and discovering.

When our children began having children, Karen and I asked ourselves the question, “What do we want them to call us?” Grandad is too stiff. Maybe Grandaddy. Borrowing from other languages helped us. We landed on Nona for Karen. But we continued to struggle with names for me until we landed on Papa Daddy.

Somehow Papa Daddy invokes a soft, approachable older man. It’s a name that sounds familiar and safe. It was the name we stuck with and the one that the grandkids now use.

Living out the persona that goes with the name has been more complicated. It works best when I’m taking the grandkids on a walk through the woods or reading them a story or playing airplane with them.

I wear many hats in life. I wear the leader hat a lot. I build enterprises and deploy people. That hat looks so different than the Papa Daddy hat.

The leader hat comes with a truckload of goals and expectations. The accountability that leaders require of their followers can feel harsh. It doesn’t play well with a generation that grew up in dysfunctional families led by absentee fathers.

I try to show my human side to our staff. I try to be interruptible. I try to encourage them.

And sometimes, I surprise them by closing down the office and taking them all to the movies. When I’m with staff on trips, we hang out. They may even see me wearing a Papa Daddy hat.

Recently I was corresponding with a young leader and he made a statement. Maybe it was a challenge. “The version of you that I like that builds the most trust with me and my peers is seeing what I would call “papa Seth who takes us to the movies.

That raises a provocative question. What will serve this young leader and his peers the most? And this is closely followed by another question: Can I become what they need?

What about when they want to be celebrated and they haven’t accomplished anything? What about when they want to shirk responsibility?

The Grandad role is a privileged one. You get there because you’ve lived out the Dad or the Mom role. You don’t get to the skip this step. You get to enjoy your grandkids and leave most of the hard work to the parents. It’s especially sweet when the parents are doing their job. 

But what about when there isn’t that leader? Work has to get done. Expectations have to be met. And when followers don’t follow, there have to be consequences.

Richard Rohr calls this work of boundary-setting and protecting “the sacred no.” If the answer to every question is “yes,” then boundaries are not established – things lose their value.

Historically, the boundary-setting job of answering “no” has been fathering work. We can see what happens when fathers go AWOL in our society at present. A good example is the me too movement – a righteous call for accountability that fathers should have established. 

There is a generation looking for more love and maybe less expectation/accountability. What do we think about that? Perhaps we need to rebalance. Maybe we older people need to think about changing our style.

And that begs the question: Is it possible for leaders to jump from a corporate leader role to a kinder, gentler role? 

I’m going to go with the idea that, yes, it’s possible, and good. But first there need to be a few men (and women) to do the hard work of fathering. Someone needs to make sure that the walls and boundaries that protect the families and the tribe are maintained. Someone needs to do the work of saying “no.”

Now that we have stronger leaders at work, I am hoping that I can respond well to the challenge to become a softer, more cuddly version of myself. I’m not prepared to abandon our high expectations, but I really want to be freed up to be more fun and relational. People need a Papa Daddy in their life. 

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